David Barton Gets A Lesson In Honesty

The demise of self-proclaimed historian David Barton offers a critical lesson to political idealists. Photo: AP Images

DALLAS, August 24, 2012 — In the culture wars, liars often prove a massive disadvantage for the causes they attempt to champion.

Conservatives and evangelical Christians have had to deal with a controversy this week, and maybe a liar too, as Wallbuilders founder David Barton’s newest book has been pulled by his publisher, Thomas Nelson, due to historical errors that were found to render it unsellable. Barton, who has been a hero to Christian evangelicals for years, is known for his claims that the Founding Fathers wanted America to be a Christian nation and that the majority of them were “orthodox, evangelical” believers. Recently, however, a significant number of mainstream Christian scholars have begun to question the validity of his claims, with Christian college professor Warren Throckmorton going so far as to write a book debunking Barton’s views.  

One of David Barton’s main areas of interest is the spiritual life of America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson. Barton approaches this undeniably enigmatic subject with confidence, asserting that Jefferson was “orthodox” for most of his life, that he fought against the institution of slavery, that he used federal funds to promote Christian missions to the Indians, that he didn’t believe in a “wall of separation” between church and state but in a Republic that would actively promote Christianity.

He likewise suggests that Jefferson’s sexual morality was unimpeachable, that he didn’t really edit out the miraculous stories of the New Testament and that he founded the Virginia Bible Society. Throckmorton and others, such as Michael Coulter, John Fea and Jay Richards, a senior fellow at the creationist Discovery Institute, insist the documents show otherwise, with considerable evidence to back them up.

Barton’s Wallbuilders group has been a polarizing force for years, dividing the nation’s historical enthusiasts into two camps: those who swear by the supposedly Jeffersonian ideal of a separated church and state, and those who are of Barton’s persuasion, namely that revisionist historians have edited Jefferson’s evangelical beliefs out of the textbooks. Unfortunately, this divide leaves out a third very plausible and very reasonable possibility, which is that Jefferson was a product of his times, heavily influenced by the enlightenment deism of the age, as racist as most Europeans were, and a staunch believer in freedom of religious expression. It is asking a lot to expect this 18th century thinker to measure up to either the contemporary ideals of either conservatives or liberals. Those ideals didn’t even exist yet.

While Jefferson certainly doesn’t fit Barton’s ideal of an evangelical Christian statesman who wanted a biblically-based government, neither can he serve as a poster boy for the secular, liberal vision. His statements about responsibility, fiscal sanity, traditional morality, and even God are too numerous to overlook. Indeed, they make up a great portion of Jefferson’s oft-quoted writings. Let’s take a look at a few which seem to soundly rebuff the contemporary liberal ideal.

I think, myself, that we have more machinery of government than is necessary, too many parasites living on the labor of the industrious.” (A bit of a blow to the welfare state and the Life of Julia)

From Notes on the State of Virginia: “Was the government to prescribe to us our medicine and diet, our bodies would be in such keeping as our souls are now.” (Putting him squarely in the anti-Bloomberg opposition and against proponents of government healthcare)

I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.”

The policy of the American government is to leave their citizens free, neither restraining nor aiding them in their pursuits.”

Regardless of where you stand on the big Jefferson Question, the recent Barton saga delivers a critical exhortation that all idealists and public policy advocates would do well to heed.  Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And as a flawed mortal, you will likely need God’s help to do it.

Career politicians and mercenary public figures may be able to get away with shocking deceptions, but idealists who play at the mind wars for the sheer love of the things they espouse have no business twisting the truth even a little. We have not waded into battle, into these culture wars, for money or for fame, for public notice or for personal advancement. What do we have left on our side if we lose the truth? 

A history buff, self-taught artist, and enthusiastic autodidact, Bryana brings her always politically incorrect and usually passionate views about politics and the theory of government to her readers. In addition to writing for the TWTC, she also writes for The College Conservative and maintains the official High Tide Journal at www.thehightide.com. You can also find her on twitter at @_Bryana_Johnson and on facebook.

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Bryana Johnson

Passionate about liberty, and the theory of government, Bryana serves as the vice president of a local political club and reports on political happenings around the globe.
In addition to her political activities, Bryana has won prizes in multiple poetry contests and her first poetry collection, Having Decided To Stay, was released in 2012. She writes regularly about the good life, literature and the world’s great Lover over at www.bryanajohnson.com. You can follow her on twitter at @_Bryana_Johnson and on facebook. 

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